A memoir and love story
Our lives started on the day life as we knew it ended. And no, that’s not a paradox, a conundrum, or a smart-assed statement meant to grab your attention. It’s just a simple statement of fact. Life began on the day that life as we knew it, ceased to exist. But, before our new lives could be fully invested, we experienced a long period of liminality. Liminality is a condition; a place where you’re trapped in a kind of no-man’s land, a place where time and space cease because your old life is gone, but your new life hasn’t yet started. It’s where June and I found ourselves, struggling to survive an injury that upended our lives, forever changing us. We had no inkling it would be close to three thousand days; nearly nine years before our metamorphosis was complete and we began our new life together.
It was circumstance, not choice, that scrambled my life at age fifty-three and the lives of those dear to me. It happened on the eighteenth of February 2000: the cusp of the new millennium. It was two days before June’s forty-ninth birthday, when I fell and became an instant quadriplegic. We’d been married for twenty-three years and were devastated by an event so outside our ken that we couldn’t have been more surprised if Auntie Em’s house had dropped out of the sky and squashed us.
Friday night, eight o’clock, we’d just finished eating supper. Since it was only the two of us, we were planning to settle in and watch television for the evening, maybe get lucky and find a movie to watch.
Our home at the time was a 1920’s Craftsman with covered ceilings, arched doorways and oak hardwood floors. It sat on a corner lot in an older part of Colorado Springs. There were flower beds everywhere, mountain ash trees seventy feet tall lining the street and a black iron fence with a cannonball gate bordering the front lawn and sidewalk. Inside, there was a brick fireplace with a wraparound mantle, a three foot throat and antique cast iron logs. In the corner to the left rested the television. I mention these details because they were all I saw for the next eight hours . . . and all I thought about for the eight weeks after that because as Dorothy said: “There’s no place like home.” And home was where I longed to be.
June got up and headed for the kitchen. I stood up to follow her . . . and fell face-down on the floor . . . my legs had no feeling . . . and no strength.
The hardwood rose up to greet me, knocking my glasses off and plowing a two inch furrow down my left cheek. Bleeding and stunned I tried to stand up, but couldn’t. My right side, from my shoulder to the sole of my foot, was paralyzed. Unknown at the time, I’d ruptured the third and fourth cervical vertebrae in my neck. “The vertebrae are the small bones which are stacked one on top of the other and form the backbone. There are seven cervical vertebrae in the neck, twelve thoracic vertebrae to which the ribs are attached and five lumbar vertebrae in the lower back. There are also five fused vertebrae forming the sacrum and four final ones which are the coccyx, or tailbone.” (From the Oxford English Dictionary). Each vertebra has small bone projections, where muscles are attached, a layer of fatty gristle that acts as a shock absorber between bones, and a hole in the center through which the spinal cord passes, floating in cushioning fluid. It is the spinal cord that relays the electrical impulses from the brain to the muscles, and tells our arms, legs, fingers and toes to open or close, run, jump, walk, stand, sit, or do whatever other movement we command our bodies to make. It’s the pathway by which our muscles communicate with our brains. The spinal cord is like the main telephone line and all the connecting lines go through it. Therefore, if our main phone line gets damaged or broken up north, then none of the phones, or muscles, south of there are going to work right.
That’s what happened to me. When the vertebrae in my neck ruptured, they slid over and dented my spinal cord, cutting it down to half it’s normal size, preventing the signals from my brain reaching my muscles. I was screwed.
June came to my aid at once. She wiped the blood from my face, applied antiseptic to the cut and started to call nine-one-one for emergency services.
“No, don’t do it yet,” I said, “maybe it’ll go away, like when you hit your funny bone. Wait a bit.”
I’d never been hurt or ill in any major sort of way up until then, and guessed that my body would fix itself if we waited. Eight hours later we were still waiting. I was still laying on the floor in the exact same position . . . and still paralyzed. June called the paramedics. They came in less than seven minutes; five firemen in full turnout gear, a lady fire lieutenant, a fire department EMT and the ambulance company EMT.
The lieutenant stood over me, dressed in rubber boots, flame resistant heavy pants and coat with strips of silver reflective tape and a fire helmet with a flip up face shield. She looked me up and down, said, “ARE YOU DRUNK?”
“No,” I said.
“HAVE YOU BEEN DRINKING AND FIGHTING?” She pointed to the blood on my cheek.
“No, goddamnit. I fell. And there’s nothing wrong with my hearing either.”
June took over. She said, “He’s been having back problems. We were just at the neurosurgeon’s office this afternoon.”
More was said, but I wasn’t part of the conversation. The EMT’s, with the help of the firemen, were busy immobilizing me in head and neck restraints, and lashing me to a backboard. Five minutes later I was in an ambulance headed for the emergency room at Penrose Hospital with an oxygen mask clamped to my face. I was scared out of my mind. So scared, that as the firefighters were carrying me to the ambulance, I said, “I don’t want to live like this;” which, unknown to me, brought forth the first of June’s tears. I would rather have ripped my tongue out by the roots than to have made her cry. Regrettably, it wasn’t the last time. I didn’t understand that this wasn’t only about me.
I woke up for a couple of minutes on Saturday morning, only long enough for Dr. Murk, Steve the Neurosurgeon, to go over the surgery and have me sign the permission forms. Then everything went black.
I watched John as Dr. Murk explained how he was going to make an incision in his throat, cut through his esophagus, move his voice box and relieve the pressure on his spinal cord by taking out the cartilage between the third, fourth and fifth vertebrae, then enlarge the opening the spinal cord passes through. When finished he would pack the openings where the cartilage was removed with tissue from the bone bank, which is bone harvested from organ donors, and install a titanium plate with self-tapping screws from his third to his fifth vertebrae, then put everything back in place and sew him up.
Dr. Murk said, “It may change your voice some.”
“I won’t sound like Donald Duck, will I?”
“No nothing like that.”
John said, “Okay.” He didn’t remember the conversation until I told him about it a couple of weeks later. He was still paralyzed. I held the pen in his hand, and together we scratched out a facsimile of his signature, giving Dr. Murk the go-ahead. With tears streaming down my face, I kissed him on the forehead. I told John I loved him, even though I knew he couldn’t hear me. Dr. Murk told me everything would be fine as I watched a pair of orderlies in green scrubs wheel him through the doors marked surgery. Through tears, I walked to the surgical waiting room, wondering if I’d ever see John alive again. My tears came in a deluge I couldn’t stop. I didn’t know my body could hold so many, but it did. The supply seemed inexhaustible as I waited.
Dr. Murk came out of surgery about three hours later, saying, “It’s going just fine, but it would be a bit longer.” He had assembled an emergency surgical team and they were all doing their best.
It was another three hours, the longest of my life, before Dr. Murk came out a second time and hugged me, then said, “He’s okay. The surgery went well and we’ve stabilized his injury. He’s going to be asleep for a few days while he heals, but I want you to come in and see him. I’m going to wake him for a moment so you can tell him it’s going to be all right.”
I dried my face and went with Dr. Murk to the recovery room. John was on his back with bandages and a huge, two-piece brace on his neck. He had an oxygen monitor on his left index finger, a drain tube protruding from his chest that was held in place with surgical tape and connected to a plastic bag. He was wired to a heart monitor that beeped and displayed his cardiac rhythms on a screen next to him, while a couple of IV’s in his left arm dripped fluids, a catheter tube draped over the side of the bed into a collection bag took them out and a clear plastic oxygen mask was strapped to his face. I almost burst into tears all over again at the sight of him. My big, strong, ‘Don’t worry honey, I’ll take care of it!’ man looked so helpless.
Dr. Murk did something to one of the IV’s and said, “He’s out in Kansas somewhere and may not make much sense.” But John, who’s claustrophobic, said, “Oh, June, I love you, but tell them to get this fucking thing off my face.”
“Well, I guess he’s not in Kansas anymore,” Dr. Murk said with a smile “We’ll put him back to sleep for a while.” Then he asked me when I’d last slept. “Thursday night,” I said. It was now Saturday evening. I had been up for about forty hours straight and I was stressed to my absolute limit. He told me to go home and get some rest, that nothing would be happening for a few days.
When I got home I realized how exhausted I was. Physically, emotionally and spiritually, I was drained to the core. Duke and Teddy, our cats were there to greet me and ask in their silent way, “What’s up? Where’s John? What’s going on?” They stuck close to me wherever I went, and chirped, me-rowed or patted me with their paws whenever I stopped moving. I put food and fresh water out for them, ate some soup, then fell into bed with a cat snuggled up on either side of me and fell into a restless sleep.
I awoke from the medically-induced coma on Wednesday. I was in the hospital’s Critical Care Unit, a changed man, but unaware how much I’d changed at the time. Welcoming me back was June and our daughter Susan, who’d flown in from California, and my friend Bob Will, who came down from Vail Mountain and lied his way in, claiming to be my brother, which I guess he is, in a spiritual sort of way.
My right arm and leg now answered my brain commands. I could move my fingers and toes, too, but without finesse or any sense of fine motor skill. Some of those abilities would return, but only after prolonged, physical therapy . . . that was the good news. The bad news . . . many abilities, such as walking unaided, were gone. But I didn’t know that then, and it was fortunate, because I wasn’t ready for the rest of my life in a wheelchair. Not by a long shot. I was moved up to the eighth floor Rehab Unit on Friday, the end of my first week of liminality.
Time stops when you’re incarcerated. There’s no difference between being in jail or the hospital: outside time stops. The world disappears and only the hospital exists. It is a world of strange sounds, strange smells and strange events. They consist of things called ‘procedures,’ that mostly hurt, and which could be anything from a simple x-ray to having your heart removed and replaced with a battery powered pump. They are all referred to as a procedure, and they mostly hurt. After the first few days of procedures, I had three questions for the person, usually a nurse, who gave me the news. ‘Does it hurt? Is it invasive?’ And ‘Can I be knocked out?’ If the answer was ‘yes,’ even a weaselly one such as ‘Maybe just a wee tiny bit, but it’s nothing as bad as giving childbirth,’ to either of the first two questions, I always did my damndest to get a yes answer to question number three. Sometimes the nurse would say things like ‘Oh, you can take it, it’s not that bad,’ or ‘don’t be such a pussy, or other words like that, but my advice to anyone in a similar situation is to stick to your guns and get knocked out. The ridicule won’t hurt nearly as much as the procedure . . . no matter what the nurse tells you. After procedures, there was breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus one hour per day of therapeutic exercise, which is where I met and started learning how to deal with the new and disabled me. The rest of the day was mostly boredom. I read a lot, and waited for visiting hours when June would come. I lived for her visits.
After the initial shock of John’s injury and surgery, my life fell into a routine. I was up at six a.m., shower and dress for work, feed Duke and Teddy and get to the office by seven-thirty when the market opened. At the time, I was executive assistant to one of the largest, most admired and respected stockbrokers in the city. We were an excellent team and worked well together. Our firm was Dain Rauscher and Company, which was owned by the Royal Bank of Canada, or RBC as it was commonly known. I mention this because he routinely produced commissions in excess of six figures per month. With dollar-denominated assets under management in the low to medium nine figure range, it was an intense job. I kept all the buy or sell orders, monies coming, going or reinvesting sorted out and all of the endless paperwork in support of all the other activities correct and up-to-date in order to satisfy the requirements of the New York Stock Exchange and the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission: the NYSE and SEC respectively. My job was complex and technical. I explained to my boss what had happened to John on my first day back in the office. Word flashed around among the other thirty-five people who worked there within minutes, and I fielded well-intended but meaningless “Let me know if there’s ANYTHING I can do . . .” comments for the next few days. The unhappy truth was that the whole wagonload of grief was mine alone to pull.
I called my sisters and John’s brothers with the news from the hospital. And of course I called Alice and George, who worked at John’s antique store. John’s mother had passed in August of 1999, back in upstate New York, and John was the executer for her estate and trying to get it settled . . . no easy job from 1,800 miles away . . . so George and Alice were used to running the store in John’s absences, but this kind of sick leave entailed a whole new level of responsibility for them.
I went to the office every day, did my job, hoping I hadn’t made any costly compound errors, and tried not to worry about John, or think about him, laying a couple of miles north of me in Penrose Hospital on the eighth floor rehab unit, while I was working.
When I got off at four-thirty, I’d run home, get the mail, feed the cats, pet and talk to them for a few minutes. I could tell that they missed John. They were searching all around the house for him and sticking close to me whenever I was there. Then, I’d go straight to the hospital.
Time stood dead still up on the eighth floor. The Nurses, Therapists and Doctors were all kind, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of being pitied. I wanted to find a hole and hide, ashamed to be so weak, so debilitated and so wasted. I was angry. Why me? Flashed through my mind dozens of times per day. I felt sorry for myself. I cried for the first few days and I didn’t want anyone to see me. It was a hard time and the only relief I got was when June was there. I didn’t have any idea of the level of pain she was going through.
The first bill from the hospital came during the second week of John’s stay. I almost passed out when I opened it. Use of Surgical Suite $50,0000. I thought maybe it was a misprint. There was no mention of the neurosurgeon, anesthesiologist or other members of the surgery team, the Emergency Room or the Critical Care Unit. Those bills were still to come and they were all just as massive as the first one.
I felt like I was caught in the jaws of a giant beast that was trying to swallow me whole. At first I was overwhelmed. There were too many things to deal with and I existed in a sort of zombie-state. I walked and talked and appeared as normal, but my mind was elsewhere—lost in liminality, consumed by worry and stress.
Help came from the unlikeliest of sources. Penrose Hospital assigned us a Case Manager. In John’s and my case, it was a wonderful retired navy nurse who’d seen duty in the Vietnam War. Her name was Arlene and she was a godsend. Her first words to me were reassuring: “I’m here to see that the only thing you have think about is John and yourself. Give me all the bills and insurance information and I’ll take care of them for you.” And she did. From that moment on, Arlene was our go-to gal for everything . . . like the $2,250.00 mystery bill I got for “Emergency Room x-ray interpretation,” which Arlene said was ‘Bullshit!’ and I never heard another peep about it. Looking back, she was instrumental in those first days of liminality. All I can say today is ‘God Bless Arlene!’
I put all my effort into rehab, believing at the time I would regain the ability to walk unassisted. I have, over the years, done thousands of hours of therapy. After the hospital and outpatient benefits were exhausted, June and I hired a personal trainer at the local YMCA. But after four more years of working three times a week for one and half to two hours per session, I still couldn’t walk, and we couldn’t afford the four hundred dollars every month any longer. Things had changed.
Three weeks after I got out of the hospital, June’s mother died. It wasn’t a surprise, she was in her eighties and ill, but her loss caused June and me inconsolable grief. Her name was Genevieve—Mother or Tabby to those of us who loved her the most. Her loss left a hole in our hearts that can never be filled. It seemed like a kick in the balls to lose her so soon after such a devastating change of life event, but there was more to come.
In what was an unexpected and total surprise to me, my boss retired. He was only fifty-five at the time: two years older than John. Everyone else in the office it seemed, knew all about it but me. I couldn’t help but take it personally, even with the bonus he paid me as a parting gift. I missed working with him and took a substantial salary cut. A year later I was on the street looking for a new job. This was only the first thousand or so days of liminality. Our lives were getting back to routine . . . but they’d never be normal again. John has gone from being an independent, proud and manly man to one who is unable to care for himself as he would like; to one who is forced to depend on me for some of his most personal necessities. It isn’t easy for either one of us, but I think it has shown the depth of our love and commitment to each other and I can honestly say that our personal bond is as strong as that which binds atoms into molecules.
There is a lot more to tell, but this is a short, four thousand word memoir, not an interview for the Queen For a Day Show. One of the first things I learned in therapy was that few marriages survive these kinds of injuries—let’s say ten percent or less. I believed them and it caused June and me much pain, as well as thoughts of a quick trip up highway .357 to heaven for me. There were two more spinal cord operations, physical and mental therapy for both of us, other deaths of family, friends and pets. We’ve had sorrow and joy aplenty in our lives, lived through it all and learned from it too. Three thousand days seems like a lot when looking ahead, but looking back, it passed in the blink of an eye. June and I can honestly tell you all that we are more happy and content than ever—and more different than ever. I think our time in liminality taught us one overriding principal: sooner or later life is going to knock all of us down in the dirt. It’s how you get back up that matters, and sometimes it takes two working together, to make it happen.